For three days this crap with Mike and Jennie has plagued me. Even if they look like the perfect couple, Jennie's my girl. Two years she's been living with me. Why didn't he just stay in the Navy?
The thought nags me, makes me think of nothing else, until the old man asks me if I want to go fishing after work. I say 'no' at first, even though I have my fishing gear in the back seat of my car. Then flipping hamburgers makes me think about it more. With her gone, the apartment will be cold and lonely. Maybe I do need to get away, I decide, so I follow the old man's Impala on a long dark trip.
Old Joe's taillights brighten then fade.
Pulling up alongside in my moody blue Camaro, I turn off the 8-track that's spilling out Skynyrd's "Searchin'." Through the windshield is an embankment of dark rustling trees and brush. This better be worth the two-hour drive.
I stop myself. The old man's cool. He promised something unusual tonight and I said yes—that's all there is to it. Besides, the last couple of times we went fishing, I caught plenty of brim and cat. So why question an old man who talks little, who sits there eyeing his line for hours? Time has shown him to be a man of few words.
Killing the lights and motor, I get out. A cool piney breeze makes me shiver inside my thin manager's jacket. Even in this moonless night, the distant sound of water fills me. Its motion will be barely visible. No bobbers tonight; we'll be fishing bottom.
I retrieve my open-face rod and tackle box. I shut the door and the interior light dims. Darkness traps me between the two cars.
The old man locks up. He jiggles the keys, clicks latches. My grandfather showed me the best way to answer any question is to watch a fishing pole. Is that why I made this two hour trip to who-knows-where after working twelve hours of burgers, buns, and barely any bucks?
Old Joe's frail silhouette appears at the back of the cars. He flips on a flashlight and shines it in my eyes to ask if I need it.
Before I can say "yes," it hits me in the chest; I fumble the light up and down before getting a handle.
Switching it on, I zero in on the upper half of the old man leaning in the trunk. His gray nappy beard gleams white, making me wonder how old he really is. I never thought to ask. I could look on his employment application, but why? He's as wiry and tough as the rattlesnake belt I traded three All-American burgers for last summer. Never late, never whining, he does the shitty clean-up jobs the high school dropouts refuse to do. Phillip calls him dependable and trustworthy, traits hard to find in the burger business. And Phillip should know, since he's the general manager. But the best thing is that Old Joe knows the best damn fishing holes in the county.
After pulling out a rod, he leans it against the car next to the tackle box and gas can. He digs further in the trunk; something lands on my foot.
He throws two more on top. Straightening, he pulls a bottle of Jack from his back pocket and offers me a drink.
I take a swig. The whiskey burns going down, hits the pit of my stomach and explodes into a fireball. The burning expands to my toes and fingers. I no longer shiver in the jacket. Returning the bottle, I thank him.
He nods, twisting on the cap. Using his flashlight, he points the way up a faint path disappearing into the brush. Shutting the car trunk, he gathers the fishing gear, gas can and two tires. "Grab that," he says, starting up the trail.
"Right," I reply, picking up the remaining nearly treadless tire. Sharp wires bury themselves into my fingers. Great, a blowout. I search the tire's rim until my fingers find no metal bites.
Making our way through the trees, we cross a sandy embankment and follow the waterline. There is a dark current when the wind picks up.
We cross paths with a fallen tree, rotting at the water's edge.
He tosses the tires down the river bank.
Adding my blown tire to the pile, I unload my fishing gear.
The old man douses the tires with gasoline. He sets aside the gas can and waves me back behind him.
Fumbling around in his pocket, Old Joe strikes a match and lobs it onto the tires. They burst into a fireball, briefly blinding me. The oily black snake of smoke eats up the night sky.
When the latch clicks on Old Joe's tackle box, I imitate him; in essence, we become one in threading rods, securing hooks, weighting lines. Loading our hooks with chicken fat, we stand and face the night wind. It whips open our jackets as we zing our lines into the dark moving water. Our poles extend from our arms like lightning rods. Locking lines in place, we snug our rods firmly behind dead tree limbs. They tighten against the current, and we wait for them to bend.
The tires melt. The rubbery treads liquefy into smoldering gel, which spits out flames. A breeze pushes the stench in my direction; I gag and move away.
The old man upturns the bottle of Jack. It glows in the tirelight. He hands it to me; I take a long drink.
Passing back the bottle, I turn to the river. I no longer feel the wind's claws. The river is wide at this point. The other side is lost in a dark foggy void, much like me. Reflections flicker with each ripple of current. Images appear and then are gone into blackness.
An image twists by; I see my father dying on the garage floor, hands grabbing his chest. For three years he cried himself to sleep after my mother died in an auto accident. They wanted me to do something with my life. They wanted me in college, to go see the world. This has troubled me often, keeping me awake a night. Only Jennie kept away the bad dreams. And now she is gone.
Another ripple brings me back to Mike, my older friend from high school. He's competitive, never gives up—even back then. He said he boxed in the service and won a few bouts. Is Jennie the prize this time?
I analyze it. When he returned, he wore that damned sailor uniform for three weeks before he put on civvies. Talking like he owned the world, and the only damn thing I could do was sit there and listen in awe.
And here I am, an assistant manager. Still flipping burgers.
No matter how I argue it out, it always comes back to me sitting there eating up his stories like some brat discovering chocolate for the first time. Not only did Mike's tales affect me, they changed Jennie, too, as she listened alongside me.
He makes her want more: the big house, the nice car. Things I cannot give her.
Should I even want her now? I should leave this place. But Branstonville has been my home for twelve years. My older brother and sisters are part of this community, while I am a loose fiber, unraveling more with each passing year. Wait. In truth, I've never been part of this town or its people. I dream of other places, other worlds.
"Must be some powerful thinkin'," says the old man. With swollen fingers, he cuts the chicken skin into strips and studies his line with an occasional glance. Old Joe spits toward the stinking fire. Spearing the knife into the tree, he gives me a good stare.
"Longin' for what you ain't got. Had it myself once."
"I'm twenty-three and working a dead end job at American Burger. What future is there?" I take the bottle and down a stiff one. This time it doesn't burn.
Studying his pole, the old man says. "I see. You'll be ready for Social Security any day now."
I snort at the idea. But inside, I know it's true. I confess. "Okay, I admit it. I want nice things. But I ain't going to get them flipping hamburgers or working one of these mills." I pause, almost telling him about Jennie, then deciding against it. Why does he need to know all my problems?
"That it? Dead end jobs or other troubles? Never-mind."
"I don't know," I say. "What d'you mean?"
"Can't kill the weed less you get its root."
I grin despite the gloom. "Okay," I say. Then I tell him my thoughts on why Jennie left. I end by saying, "She wants things I can't give her. Mike can. So she left." Pausing, I find myself out of breath and without any answer as to why I feel relief.
"Be glad she's gone," says the old man.
I stand up and pledge to be rich. "I swear it. I'll have it all before I'm done," I reassure him. "Just like Jennie and every other damned American."
The old man shakes his head in disgust. "Believe me it ain't livin' if it ain't happenin'." Then he pipes up. "When I was eighteen I joined the army to fight some crazy bastard over in Europe."
"Did you get shot?"
"Shot? Weren't many battles in the mess-hall," replies the old man, spitting at the fire. It hisses.
"Mess-hall?" I envision the old man scrubbing pots, peeling potatoes, slapping slop on tin plates. No wonder he's so good at work.
"Army needs cooks too. Imagine standin' waist deep in snow on a Swiss mountainside lookin' back at Germany miles away. All kinds of bombed buildings. Once I came upon this bombed-out church. There was this wall picture of Jesus and Angels and an apple tree. A mural. Below Jesus is Adam and Eve lookin' up at a big red apple bein' strangled by a huge serpent. Prettiest thin' I ever seen."
"What's so special about it?" I ask.
He sits back and says. "A whole church bombed to ruin, except for one picture on the one wall left.
"He must've saved that wall picture Himself." His voice fades while he gnaws at his bearded chin.
"I wonder what it meant?"
Old Joe squints at the fire. "What d'you think?
"I don't know. It could mean a lot of things," I reply.
"Thin' is. If I hadn't gone I'd never've seen that picture. Sometimes I can see it in my mind's eye crystal clear. I can even see the ivy hangin' about them Angels' feet. It's weird. Like I'm standin' right—watch your pole!"
With several tugs on my line, I snatch back the rod.
The hook sets and my pole tip bends heavily.
I reel up the line. This one has fight. It must be good size, maybe ten pounds or more. Old Joe sure knows where to find the big ones. I watch it thrash huge water rings in the tirelight. The water rings move inward then are sucked down into an unknown depth before exploding outward into multiple ringlets, each one carrying its own image.
I reel the line down to my catch at the river's edge and bend down to pick it up.
It snaps at me, forcing me to jump back. I nearly stumble over Old Joe.
"It's a snake!" I gasp at him, moving to the right for a better look.
"Eel," he replies, studying the tip of his rod.
"A what?" I ask, pulling the long wiggling body closer. Almost a foot and half long, it is covered in sand, vice-like jaws gaping, ready to clamp down.
Well. He did say we were going to catch something unusual tonight, and here it is.
"What am I going to do with it?" I confront him. The eel flips behind the old log, barely visible in the shadows.
"They're good eating," he says, pulling the whiskey bottle out of the dirty sand.
"I'm not touching it," I blurt out, setting down my rod.
Old Joe studies me. 'They ain't poison. There's no difference between that eel and the things you want in life." He tosses me the bottle.
I catch it and take a stiff drink, spitting a little at the tire-fire. The steel strands of wire are now charred gray.
A breeze pushes the oily cloud in my direction; I move again.
He pulls my line up to where he is sitting on the log. "Watch the jaws," he says, grabbing the eel at the back of its head, or its neck or whatever it has. He uses needle-nosed pliers to pry the hook from its mouth. The eel twists around his arm.
The old man chuckles something about "feisty little buggers," and peels it off his forearm. He tosses it onto the sandy embankment behind us.
It burrows into the sand.
Now I am a catcher of eels!
Old Joe reels in another eel, about the same size as the last one. He unhooks it and lobs the thing over his shoulder.
Then a pack of them move in. We start catching them, one after the other. Four hours later, I wonder how many eels we have caught. Maybe twenty? But not one fish!
Every couple of eels forces me to change bent hooks and take another shot of Jack. Old Joe continues to lose the fangless snakes behind us.
My stomach glows; I feel light, airy. "They sure are biting,"
The old man makes no reply.
I thread another hook, knotting the line. I grab the line and tug; it goes tight. Baiting it with a strip of chicken skin, I hand him the rod.
I take back the bottle for a final drink.
With night fading into a gray dawn, our fire burns itself out. My focus blurs, clears, blurs with morning's approach.
Casting the line back in the foggy river, Old Joe secures the pole behind the tree and takes back the nearly empty bottle. He sucks it dry and tosses it into the fast moving current. The bottle quickly bottoms out then submerges under the troubled waves.
"Happy?" I turn around. "I don't know what that word means."
"You deserve it."
The old man makes it sound so basic. Can life be that easy? A question sure to consume my existence, I chuckle. Getting up, my feet shift uneasily in the sand.
The patchy morning fog briefly opens pockets of the real world on the opposite bank. It is nearly bare, only some small trees and bushes dotting the bank. Perhaps he is right!
"I gotta go," I say, staggering across the foggy sand bank towards my Camaro. The old man laughs behind me, making me stop and turn back. "What?"
The fog parts around my ankles, and I see all the sandy eels surrounding me, jaws gaping.
The sand-caked bodies twist about my feet. They snap at me.
My vision blurs until the eels become that snake hanging from the apple tree on the church wall. Time to face the serpents. With renewed determination, I step over them.
BIO: Randy Lee White, or r l white, earned a Master of Arts in English from UNC Charlotte in 2007, and he is currently writing in North Carolina where he lives with his wife, Tammy, and children. In 2011 his co-authored movie script, The Lure, won quarter finals in the Big Break Contest. He has been published in Sanskrit and the UNC University Times. He enjoys writing, fishing, and golf.